By Ryan Evershed, YPT Graduate Student Intern
Before YPT’s Summer Drama Camps officially began, the drama school teachers, teaching assistants and volunteers gathered a few weeks earlier at Summer Orientation – a day where all of the Drama Camp staff and volunteers reflect on teaching approaches, collaborate on plans, get to know one another and prepare for the rest of the summer.
At this year’s orientation there was a great mix of new and old faces, which made it the perfect opportunity for previous staff members to share experiences with newer staff.
We sat down with Natalia Gracious (who is completing her first year on faculty with the Drama School) and Paul Lacey (a teacher at YPT for 12 years) to chat about their teaching philosophies and see if they have a little advice for new teachers and teaching assistants.
Could you tell us your role with YPT this summer and discuss what your main motivation was for joining YPT’s Summer Drama Camp?
Natalia: I’m Natalia Gracious and I’m going to be teaching Grade 2-3 Drama Camp this summer and my main motivation, well, I really love YPT! I love working here and I think the work they do is really great. I think it’s important for kids to be involved and immersed in drama – I think it’s so good for them – so I like supporting it.
What’s your approach or philosophy when it comes to teaching children and why?
Natalia: I think the main thing is that you want the kids to have fun and enjoy drama. I also really want them to be able to express themselves creatively. I think drama is a really useful tool for being able to express yourself so I want to encourage kids to have that outlet. Also, I love when students are able to learn things about themselves through drama. This happens through a lot of the games we play and also just in working with characters and learning to empathize with the characters you’re playing as well as your teammates in the class. So, I’d say that kind of encompasses my philosophy.
Tying into that, what do you hope students take away from your drama classes?
Natalia: I hope students are able to work well as an ensemble. That’s a very important part of drama and the arts I think. I also want them to take away a sense of confidence, to kind of build up their self-esteem, that they can do something they love and feel like they’re good at and also have a lot of fun doing it.
What are you hoping to learn this summer?
Natalia: I’m very excited about the play creation. This is the first time I’m doing it all by myself, so I’m very excited to figure out how to put together a show with kids in two weeks and have the whole thing go up with the tech and on the stage. I also just find whenever I’m teaching I learn so much from the kids by the way they interact with each other and their ideas. They have a lot of points of view that I wouldn’t have thought of, so I always find I learn something from them as well.
Could you please state your role with YPT this summer and the main motivation or reason for returning to YPT’s Summer Drama Camp?
Paul: My name’s Paul Lacey and I’m a Drama School teacher. I’ll be teaching the Drama and Play – so students entering Grade 1. Later in the summer I will also be teaching Grades 2-5. I have been with YPT for about 12 years now and for me what I love most is seeing the camaraderie that comes with building a piece of theatre. I think there’s nothing that is more cooperative, nothing that brings a class together so closely. When I have a class for two weeks in the summer, the students grow even closer than classes that I’ve had for the whole year in a regular school classroom. There’s something about creating a piece of theatre and the trust involved that is so special and it gives me the chance as teacher to practice new pedagogy I’m thinking about. I’m trying as a teacher to become someone who’s focusing on peace-building, on cooperation as opposed to competition. I can bring all this into the drama school in a way that I think is really special and really magical for me.
Can you talk about any teaching methods or approaches that you’ve found successful in previous years?
Paul: The biggest change I made as a teacher was about six years ago when I got rid of competition in my drama classroom. I had attended a lecture at University of Toronto in teachers college with a teacher who was promoting cooperative gym classes over competitive gym classes and I thought he was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was like, ‘that’s not the real world, it can’t work that way.’ But then one time I was doing one of the usual circle drama games like Zip-Zap-Zop or something like that and a kid made a mistake. I had him sit down because he was out and he started crying and he said, ‘how am I supposed to practice this game if I’m out first all the time?’ All of a sudden it just made sense to me. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, of course! This is supposed to be about focus and group building and ensemble, and I just sat the kid out because he made a mistake. That’s not theatre.’ In the next class a kid asked during a game whether we could do ‘outs’ and all of a sudden I just blurted it out – I didn’t even mean to – I just said, ‘You know what, I don’t do outs anymore.’
When I started to make the class about cooperation instead of competition everything became even more beautiful. The class started to care about each other more. The kids started worrying about each other’s feelings more, they started thinking about each other. The classroom community became easier to run because I had gotten rid of this aspect of the classroom that I don’t even really think is part of theatre anyway. That was the biggest change I made. It’s changed my teaching forever.
What are you looking forward to most this summer?
Paul: I love bringing the kids a starting point of inspiration and seeing where they take it because it’s always not what I expected. I like to give a kernel of the starting point and I’ll sleep on it for nights and nights thinking, ‘Oh, they might go here, they might go here, or they might go here, I can ask this question, this question or that question’ and then when I bring it out they take it in a completely different direction and everything I thought was going to happen doesn’t work out – and I love it when that happens.
The final performance day for them is really special and for me to watch them say, ‘Okay, this is something we created together’ is something that I remember every single summer, to the point where when it’s over I get the post-show blues the way I did when I was a professional actor. It’s the same thing. For me, it’s at its best when I really feel like it’s a collaboration between me and them. It’s not me the teacher, the expert, giving them things to do, but me the teacher, guiding them. It becomes a truly collaborative experience.
Last question, do you have any advice for the teachers that are just starting?
Paul: When I was an actor in an acting school, I was interested in studying child actors, because I always tried to figure out, ‘how are they so good that they’re better than me and here I am going to school for it?’ It must be something about children that they have that adult actors either lose or don’t have or try and get back in their training. What is it? As I’ve watched them I started to see that kids act with all of their heart and they act without inhibition. As a professional actor myself, I have latched onto that phrase – to act with all of your heart – and what I’ve learned is that if you do that, you can’t go wrong. I think it applies to everything. So the advice that I would give to a new teacher is not only to let them act with all of their being and all of their heart, but to teach with all of your heart as well.
We as teachers have the training, we have the knowledge, we have all the pedagogy and this is all important. But at its core, if we care about the students and we teach with all of our hearts and love what we do with all of our hearts, then all the other stuff will come.
Paul holds a Specialized Honours B.A. in Theatre from York University with a focus on collective creation and playwriting as well as a Bachelor of Education (Primary/Junior) from OISE/University of Toronto. He has been a teacher at Young People’s Theatre for ten years. Selected writing credits include Tom Quixote (Black Recorder), Vacancy (York University Creative Ensemble), and Dream Awake (York University New Play Workshop). Selected acting credits include A Christmas Carol (EMP), Beauty and the Beast (CCP), and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (SMT). Paul holds theatre workshops for students throughout the Toronto District School Board, and has also been involved in drama teacher training and workshops. Outside of theatre, Paul holds Mathematics Specialist Additional Qualifications in the education field, and his writings on mathematics education have been featured in the Town Crier Education Guide.